Q&A: Ph.D. student Yousuf Khan and the Netflix game show, Bullsh*t

May 24, 2022, 10:27 a.m.

Yousuf Khan is a 25-year-old, third-year master’s and Ph.D. student at Stanford. His Ph.D. is in bioscience, and his master’s is in biomedical informatics. He was born and raised in the Maryland-Virginia area, and he went to the University of Maryland for his undergraduate degree. He lived in Europe for a year before coming to Stanford.

Yousuf recently competed on the Netflix game show, Bullsh*t, where players compete for money. Here’s how you play:

There are three challengers, and one person is in the “hot seat.” The hot-seat player is presented with a multiple-choice trivia question. They select an answer and are discretely told if they guessed correctly or not. If the hot-seat plater chooses the answer correctly, they stay in the game; if they get the question wrong, they need to try and convince the challengers that their guess is right. The game tests both trivia and knowledge skills, with players competing for money.

The Daily sat down with Khan to hear about his experience on the show amid his Ph.D. work at Stanford.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How did you find out about the show and actually get on it?

Yousuf Khan [YK]: My friend Ziad Ali, who is also a Stanford student, a third-year Ph.D. in electrical engineering, appeared for one episode on a trivia show called “The Chase,” which was on ABC. After his show, they asked him, “Do you know any people who are good at trivia?” Ziad knew that I had done Quiz Bowl in high school, and he was like, “Yeah! My friend Yousuf used to do a lot of trivia.” And so the producers of that show contacted me, and I went through the entire tryout process for “The Chase,” which involved an online quiz, an interview and an in-person quiz show. They liked me, but they said, “Oh, actually there’s this other show on Netflix that we’re trying to make. Maybe you’d be better for that” — and I was like, “Okay, sounds great.” And that was a year ago. So over a year’s time, I got calls randomly from people, and I had to do online quizzes, in-person quizzes, in-person interviews and everything. Finally, in September 2021, they were like, “Hey, come to New Mexico in two days!”

I got there, and even in the airport, they immediately told me, “You’re not allowed to speak to anybody else except for people who are on the show. You cannot speak to other contestants. We are trying to make sure that nobody knows anything about anybody before this game, because if somebody knows you’re from Stanford and really good at science, then it’ll give an advantage over other contestants. They’ll know that you’re really good at science questions, and they’ll know to trust you more.” My code name was Strawberry Shortcake.

TSD: Ah, so people didn’t know each other’s real names?

YK: No, not until the filming started. My car from the airport had a piece of paper that said “Strawberry Shortcake” on it. They whisked me to the hotel in Albuquerque because Netflix’s filming studio is there. They were doing my clothes, makeup and taking pictures of me. They were doing this to other contestants, too, but I couldn’t speak to them.

The next day when I got up for filming, they took us to the main campus of Netflix. It was really cool. That was where they filmed “Breaking Bad” and “Stranger Things.” I got to see some of the sets, which was really cool. When I arrived, they immediately did COVID tests. If you tested positive, you went home and couldn’t compete on the show. I was like, “I hope some guy who sat next to me on the plane did not give me COVID.” But it was all good — no issues. Then they took us to the wardrobe for makeup. We had rooms that were blocked off from everyone else. They checked our clothes, makeup, everything, and this all took about five hours, which was a really long time. Finally, one of the producers came into my room, closed the door and said, “We want you to be the person to open the show.”

I was like, “Oh?” He said, “That means you’ll automatically be able to compete for money right off the bat.” I was like, “Yup. Let’s go. I’m ready to go. All right — we’re goin’ in. We’re goin’ in.” 10 minutes later, we were walking onto the set.

I got there, I stood up and Howie Mandel came out and was like, “Nice to meet you.” I thought, “What? Like what is going on?”

TSD: That’s so cool!

YK: Yeah! Then the filming was even longer. It was around 10 hours of filming, and they cut a lot of stuff out, like interviews, different shots, walking shots. So that was the fun, Hollywood portion of it. It was nice to be a star for a few days, I guess.

TSD: What made you want to do the show? Is it that you wanted that experience of being a star for a day?

YK: No, nothing like that. I had done trivia shows in high school. I had done a lot of Quiz Bowl, and I was on some local and regional TV shows. I think they’re still on YouTube, the videos of when I was 17 or something. So I had done some trivia shows before. I thought, “Oh, this sounds fun. I like trivia!” I thought it would be fun to try to win some money, so I thought I would brush up on trivia again and try to do my best.

TSD: That makes sense. When you’re filming the show, do they tell you anything to say, or is it all pretty much authentic?

YK: They cut so much out. I’m so thankful for them, because I thought I’d made such a fool of myself when I watched the footage before it was cut. I looked so much more normal than I’d expected, so I’m super happy they did that. Everything you saw on the show is 100 percent authentic. The only thing that might be a little different is that they make cuts, so some reactions featured on the show may not have been in the exact place they happened. But for the most part, I’d say it’s 99 percent pretty honest.

TSD: That’s good to hear. Do you have any favorite experiences you had while you were on the show?

YK: My favorite part was actually playing the game. The game was super fun, really amazing — and super scary. I practiced so much — I had all of these preps and practices with friends. I got a bunch of practice fake responses done. The minute I went on the show and started playing, it was so stressful and so nerve-wracking that I completely forgot everything that I had practiced for. I thought to myself, “I’m just here to do my best.”

TSD: That’s a good mindset to have. How did you find the time to do the show and also your Ph.D.?

YK: That’s a good question. I still don’t really know. It was really hectic. At the same time I was practicing trivia for the show, I was also in a class or two, doing my Ph.D. research and preparing for an interview with Google for an internship — it was super stressful. I tried to study for three to four hours a day for the show in between experiments and problem sets and other stuff.

TSD: Sounds like it! Given that you went on a show that rewards you for lying, do you think you’re a good liar?

YK: Absolutely not. Everyone likes to think they’re a good liar, but I have gotten so many roasts from everybody who knows me. They were all like, “We knew immediately whether you were lying or not.” Everyone was like, “Oh my god, you’re the worst liar ever,” so I don’t think I’m a great liar — but I’m just barely good enough to have made it through the questions I needed to get. But no spoilers!

TSD: Were there any particularly funny or egregious lies you’ve told during your life?

YK: This is more cringe than egregious. I was interviewing for the Knight-Hennessy scholarship in 2019. After the interview, the interviewees all went out to a bar nearby. As the night went on, I was enjoying myself, and for some reason I randomly started talking to this person — for reference, I was still living in England at this time — and pretended that I was from England. I did a whole English accent. I thought my accent was decent. The person at least thought it was passable. I had a long conversation with him. He was super nice. I think he even invited me back to his place for a little bit with him and his friends, so I had to keep this accent up for a few hours, which is terrible. I was thinking, “This is so cringe. Why did I do this? I’m literally an idiot.” So that was the most cringe lie I pulled. I still kind of cringe about it.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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